November 22nd

I work at a huge foreign language school in Suzhou.  We have 3 separate middle schools alone (I work in 2 of them).  In reality, we’re sort of a dozen or so schools all kind of crammed into one campus.  

Each department runs a bit differently.  Classes begin at 7:40am school-wide, but each department ends at a slightly different time.  In kindergarten, they are finished at 4:30, but my students don’t finish their school day until around 7:30pm.  (Yeah… Let that sink in).

This means more than 3000 thousand students are leaving the school daily, in shifts, beginning at 4:30 and going all the way up to around 8pm.  This is fantastic for street vendors, looking to hock their goods.  

There is almost always a guy selling flowers outside the school gates.  Not sure why, but he must sell enough of them because he’s always there. 

There are also the kind of vendors you’d expect outside of a school: guys selling candied fruit and other snacks.  The kids see it and beg their parents for a treat.  It makes for easy sales.

Occasionally, I see pet vendors there.  They sell rabbits, birds and other small animals.  That really bothers me.  Luckily, I’ve never actually seen them make a sale, and they don’t come around often, so I don’t think they’re very successful. 

Today, I noticed a new vendor.  He was selling candied dates on skewers.  It’s a popular snack and we see people selling them off the back of ebikes all the time.  But this guy was doing it in style…

My camera didn’t quite pick up the colour properly, but his goods were all lit up with colourful and flashing lights.  It was definitely eye-catching.  I thought it was a pretty brilliant way to attract customers and to hopefully get an extra sale or two.  

An Eventful End to Summer

It’s hard to believe that Dave and I have nearly been back in China for a month already!  The past 3+ weeks have flown by possibly even faster than our time in Canada did!  I sat down today with the intention of writing about Vancouver and realized that until I updated all the things that have been going on out here, I couldn’t focus on another topic.  So here we go!!

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Here’s a picture of Suzhou’s iconic ‘Pants Building’ being cleaned.  Just because…

I’ve  Been Performing as a Lead Vocalist!

Until recently, I was working back up or in duets with The Chairmen.  It’s been great fun playing with those guys, but when Kit (our fearless leader) approached me and asked if I’d do a duet show with our guitarist, Mark, I jumped on the opportunity.  We’ve only done one show so far, but it was pretty cool singing all 3 sets by myself.  Best of all, Mark is super flexible about what play, so I’ve been able to do a bunch of new stuff.  It was a nice switch up after all the Adele and Stevie Nicks I’ve been doing since May!!

I’m Competing in the Suzhou Expat Talent Show!

This one came about in a bit of a crazy way…Back in July, one of the HR staff at my school contacted me about representing the school at some kind of school district party.  I agreed because I knew I’d already be back in Suzhou by that point and all was good.  They knew I cover Adele, so they recommended I do “Rolling in the Deep”.  I was cool with it.

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We ran into our friend, Nick, at the show.  He was there on behalf of  his new school, Eaton House.  (Also, my face looks like that because he was photobombing us)

Fast forward to the day of the ‘government party’…it turns out that this was less of a school district party and more of a ‘government beer party’.  There was a full band there waiting for me along with about 100 government officials and 200 teachers (etc) from schools in the area.

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I had a tough act to follow…this (rather tone-deaf) district big wig sang some traditional Chinese songs before my performance

The real kicker was when HR Frank told me…about an hour before I went on…that if it went well, I would be representing Suzhou Foreign Language School in this year’s Expat Talent Show.  Notice that he didn’t ask…

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Oh yeah, and that talent show will be televised and recorded in front of a huge audience.  And it’s in 4 days…
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This band didn’t like me very much…They wouldn’t believe me when I said I did the song in A Minor (I don’t have a terribly high voice) and they refused to play it in my key.  I had to sing it high, and I wasn’t as strong as I could have been, but it was alright…I guess…

It went well.  Fast forward to 4 DAYS LATER (!!!!) and it was talent show time!  There was a mix up with the band (mainly, there wasn’t one) but I lucked out when I learned that The Chairmen (my band) were also going to be performing (the rest of them all work for the same school).  They ended up backing me for my song too, and the performance went pretty well!  Here, you can see it yourself!!!

To my credit, I don’t feel like I looked as unprepared as I felt!  I was very relieved to have Kit and Mark there!  I also had a student come to see me perform, which was pretty awesome.  I have awesome students.  Have I mentioned that?

I have no idea what the results were for this show.  From what I understand, they are going to be watching video auditions for the next month, and choosing people to go onto the second round from there.  I just hope I find out with more than 4 days to prepare this time!!!

I Am Writing for a News APP and a Newspaper!!

The night of the talent show, I received a text message from an editor at Nihao Suzhou, an APP designed to help foreigners in China (it’s actually a branch of Nihao China…every city has their own, I believe).  They had been for writers earlier in the week, and I’d inquired along with a link to my blog.  The editor liked my work and asked me to write an 800 word piece about anything I wanted.  A week later, I was published!

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The article was pretty successful and received over 2000 views in the first day.  Carrie, my editor, told me to go ahead and write another article if I wanted, and I submitted that one today!  Also, she was so happy with the article that she recommended it for publication in the Suzhou Daily Newspaper!  So there’s that, too!

 

I Lost the Olympics

Dave and I decided that we wanted to be more social this year, so we’ve been busy trying ot get involved in the expat community.  Dave’s joined a gaelic football team, I’ve been doing gigs (and everything else above)…and we subscribed to this really cool website called InterNations.

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The Olympic Athletes

InterNations plans all sorts of events across the city.  The one we attended last weekend was held at the Kempinski Hotel, where there is a Paulaner Brewery.  We got to learn about the ancient German art of beer making and we spent the afternoon playing games with a few friends we’d dragged along, and a LOT of new friends that we met at the event.

I did not win.  Not by a long shot.  But it WAS a blast!  And I feel like we met some really cool people.  It was definitely a good time and we’ll be attending another InterNations event next Friday.

School Started

September 1st was our first day of classes.  I am transitioned into a full-time English teacher (no more cooking classes) and am getting to know my 2 new grade 7 classes!  So far, my new coworkers are upbeat and awesome, and I’m having a great time!

So that’s been our last 3 and a half weeks!  Pretty wild!  Now I need to catch up on some sleep…

Regarding Suzhou

I spent most of yesterday working on a post about the last few months at SFLS.  Just as I was in my last paragraph, I realized that I am missing some pretty crucial photos from the Drama Festival.  Now, I usually wouldn’t let something like that stop me from publishing, but the Drama Festival was my baby this year, so until I get those photos (I did track them down!  They’re on someone else’s camera!!), I’m going to leave that post in my ‘drafts’ folder and move onto something I’ve been working on for ages…

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A sneak peak of my IGCSE play

A few months back, I published a poll asking my readers what they’d like to see next.  It was a 4 way tie, so I made the decision to write about Suzhou…the beautiful city where I live.  I’ve spent the last 3 months seeing more of the city and taking photos for the post and wound up with so much material that I’ve decided it’s going to be two posts.

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Trust me…Suzhou is worth 2 posts!

Post #1 – So, You’re Visiting Suzhou

My first post will be about all the famous landmarks there are to see in Suzhou.  The focus will be on the top places to visit if you travel to this lovely city.  The scope will be broader and more geared toward my family and friends back home who we HOPE will be encouraged to come out and visit us 😉

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We have a lovely spare room for anyone who wants to come for a visit 😉

Post #2 – So, you’re Moving to Suzhou

The second post will be more focused on the different areas of the city and the things anyone who is moving here should know.  There is a huge expat population in Suzhou and every year there are new teachers who arrive, so that post is going to be focused on helping those teachers get to know the city and helping them get settled.  If you enjoyed my ‘so you’re moving to China’ posts…you’ll enjoy what I have planned for that one.

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Auchan is the Carrefour of SIP…there is a love-hate relationship here….

So stay tuned, friends, family and internet people!  I’ll be back before you know it….

 

 

 

圣诞快乐和新年快乐!(Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!)

Although my next post was going to be about our trip to Hong Kong, I thought that writing about the Holidays might be a little more relevant.  The holiday season can be awful or amazing when you are a foreigner in another country.  It’s easy to feel homesick and marginalized when you live in a country where Christmas is important on a superficial level alone, but it helps a lot when you work with awesome people and have good friends to celebrate with.   Dave and I were fortunate enough to be part of several events with the great friends we’ve made over the last 4 months.  And although our Christmas definitely had some ‘downs’, it was, for the most part, an excellent holiday!

The school held several events around the holidays that definitely helped encourage the Christmas Spirit.  In addition to the Lao Wai Holiday supper, there was also a spelling bee the week before Christmas and then on Thursday we had the IGCSE New Year’s Gala.  All 3 events were great fun and big successes.

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One of the dearest friends I’ve made in Suzhou:  Alecia.  She teaches Spanish at the school (she’s from Spain).

My favorite of the holiday parties though, was the IGCSE New Year’s Eve gala.  IGCSE is the department of the school where I work.  Suzhou Foreign Language school is huge and there are actually 3 middle schools within the one larger school.  IGCSE is the ‘English’ department because when the students graduate middle school, they receive a bilingual diploma from the University of Cambridge.  We have some of the brightest students I’ve met in China in this program and I’m proud to be their teacher 🙂

I also got to perform at the gala.  My boss, Nathan, plays the Ukulele, so he and I chose a couple of songs and performed them for the kids and parents.  It went over really well, and when it was done, one of the IG2 students presented me with a bouquet of roses.  It was so sweet!

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We look far more professional than we actually were!

The gala finished with Abba’s ‘Happy New Year’, which I may now never get out of my head!  They asked Nathan and I at the last minute if we would sing the first 8 lines of the song solo, so I had to learn it over night.  I was so stressed about the whole thing (Abba is WAY out of my range) that I lost my voice!  Luckily, I found it the next morning, but it was still a bit of a scare!

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Nathan and I with all of the IGCSE students!  It’s unfortunate that none of the other IG teachers could make it to the event (they all work in multiple departments and couldn’t get their classes changed).  I’m glad I was able to attend, though!

But the school was not the only place where I was able to celebrate the holidays (don’t worry, Dave and I DID see each other!!).  We were invited to, and organized, several events with friends.  Just like we would back home, we ate FAR too much and spent great time with great people 🙂

Christmas Day was a lot of fun as well.  Dave and I got dressed up and had dinner at the Kempinski Hotel in Suzhou.  We ate far too much (again) and then head out to The Camel (a bar in SIP) to meet some friends that I met in Shanghai.

New Year’s Eve was also a nice evening out, though I didn’t take any pictures.  We hung out with my favorite Suzhou-Canadian: Jeff.  Whenever I miss home, I hang out with Jeff…he is basically every Canadian stereotype personified!

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This is basically Jeff

Of course, I can’t exactly say that our holiday season was everything I had hoped it would be.  The pollution from Beijing made its way down to Suzhou and Dave and I both got pretty sick from it.  My skin was very irritated by the smog and dust and both of our lungs suffered.  We really do love our life in Suzhou, but when we decide to move home, it will probably be because of the smog.  Coming from small town Canada has left me with high standards as far as air is concerned, and Suzhou doesn’t cut it.

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The first of these pictures was taken over the summer, when the pollution was very low.  The second was taken when it was at it’s worst.  We base the air quality each day on whether or not we can see the ‘Pants Building from our apartment.

 

But the smog was the least of our holiday worries.  We had Poe scheduled to be spayed on December 23rd, and although she was in heat at the time, we needed to get the surgery done so that she’d be healed in time for our departure for India.   We read about it online and everything seemed like it would be fine.  The surgery is a little more complicated when a cat is in heat, but vets do the surgery out west all the time.  So we went ahead with the surgery.

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Our Sweet Poe

A few hours after her surgery was over, we got a call from the vet telling us that she had to go back under because she had internal bleeding.  2 hours later, we found out that the vet had accidentally damaged her spleen during the original surgery (he has apologized profusely for his mistake and has admitted that it was due to his inexperience…inexperience we weren’t actually aware of…).  As a result, Poe lost her spleen and we came pretty close to losing her.

Now, anyone who is not an animal lover may not understand where I’m coming from here, but Dave and I have really fallen in love with that cat over the last month and a half.  She’s such a little ray of sunshine…very affectionate and always purring.  She became part of our little family so quickly and we were so terribly worried we’d lose her.

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She really is my little sunshine!

The veterinarian did come through for us though, and he saved our little Poe.  She spent 3 nights at the hospital and we visited her between our holiday parties whenever we had the chance.  The nurse there commented on how much higher her spirits were when we were there, which made us feel like there was SOMETHING we could actually do for her.

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Visiting her at the vet

Poe came home on Boxing Day and is still recovering.  We try to keep her out of the cone as much as possible so she can get some good rest and feel comfortable, but she’s a cat…so bathing is inevitable.  Her spirit is slowly returning and she’s becoming playful again, which is wonderful to see.  Hugo rather enjoyed being an ‘only cat’ for the 4 days she was gone, but he’s adjusting to her return.  And as much as he tries to pretend he hates that little black ball of fur, he was worried and searching for her the entire time she was gone.

 

So I guess our Christmas story had a happy ending.  🙂

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The best present I got this Christmas was to have Poe back home safe and sound, but I did score some other shwag as well!  The beautiful wallet and book were from Dave (he also got wii controls so we can play on his computer) and the painting is an original from my boss, Nathan, who is quite a talented artist!  I also received a lot of chocolate and other goodies from my students.  The cat key chain was given to me by Ken…one of the coolest 13 year olds I’ve ever met.  My whole class was worried sick about Poe.  It was very sweet that they cared so much!

I’ll be back soon with some stories about Hong Kong!

 

 

Catching up… August

It has been far too long since my last post, and I apologize to all my readers!  But, if it’s any consolation…the reason I haven’t been writing is a happy one!  I have been far too busy enjoying life to have the time to sit down and write about it!  But I’ve got a lot of catching up to do, so I better get to it!!

Saying Goodbye

We left Guiyang on August 3rd and I finished my class at 8pm on August 2nd.  I knew it was going to be hard; I’d grown quite attached to my monkeys…but I didn’t realize just HOW hard.  It took everything for me not to cry and in the end, it was the apology and the hug from my boss, Huang, that did me in.  She thanked me for all my hard work and told me that she had been very wrong about me when she thought I was a bad teacher.  That meant more than I can really explain.

Huang and I at the goodbye dinner the school held for us
Huang and I at the goodbye dinner the school held for us. She and I came a long way…
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Second last day with my babies. I miss this guys so much! I still get voice notes from many of them on WeChat…China’s bbm. It makes me smile every time I hear their little voices telling me how much they love me and miss me.

My final day at Interlingua was the hardest, because I taught most of my favorite classes on Sundays.  My Reading and Writing class was particularly difficult because I loved teaching them so much.  The mood in the class was blue, and I ended up bringing in Sylvester…the school’s kitten…to cheer them up.  It worked for a little bit, but eventually the bell rang and we had to say goodbye.

The most surprising thing for me was the parents…I expected to feel sad about saying goodbye to my students.  They are who I was closest to.  But Some of the parents are the ones that made me truly well up.

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This is Jason. He started off in my kindergarten class and eventually graduated into the level 1 primary school level. His dad had tried to get him to switch teachers at the beginning of last term, because the other teacher’s time table suited him better. Jason tried it out and then begged his dad to come back to me. This little boy…for whatever reason…thought I was the cat’s meow. I guess his dad started paying attention more after that, because on my last day, Jason’s parents came in, with a speech they’d written me (in English!) to thank me for all the hard work I’d done and how I’d helped Jason so much with his confidence. They said that I was a big part of why he’d won a speaking contest at his school recently and they showed me his performance. Talk about a rewarding job!!! I miss Jason a lot.
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This is me with Martha’s grandmother. Martha has always been special to me…she started off so sweet and shy…afraid to say a word in English class. But after some time, she blossomed into this funny, quirky, confident kid. Her grandmother feels like it was me who brought her out of her shell, and she broke down and cried a few minutes after this picture was taken. She was more upset that I was leaving that even Martha was….and Martha didn’t take it all that well either…
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She didn’t cry. She just wrapped her little arms around me and wouldn’t let go until she had to. She sends me messages through her grandmother’s WeChat account every week and I love getting them and responding. She’s such a great kid. I’m so happy she’s in my friend Chris’ class now… Chris is an awesome teacher and I know he’ll keep her out of her shell and keep her confidence up.

After saying goodbye to my wonderful K2 class, Dave and I head down to Trip Smith’s for a few final beers with the staff from the school.  Before we knew it, it was 2pm the next day and we were boarding our plane to Hong Kong.  From there….we were on our way home…

Our Trip Home to Canada

Goodness it was good to be home!  We only had 3 weeks, but WOW did we make the most of it!!  We were able to meet up with everyone who put in an effort to meet up with us and got to spend lots of great time with our wonderful families and friends.  The only downside to our trip home was the food poisoning I had for the last 5 days of our trip.  Other than that, we had a magnificent time and can’t wait to return again next year!!! (For a longer stay!!)

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I was so happy to see my grandparents, who drove out from Quebec to visit with the family while we were home! I love those two so much and it was so great to spend that time with them!..
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Our fantastically wonderful friends Nathan and Dianne. We had such great Friday nights with these two…cooking and playing Charades. I miss them both so much already!
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The only picture I got of Kathleen, and it doesn’t even have her fabulous hubby, Cory in it! They put in such a huge effort to spend time with us while we were home and it was so great going for Dim Sum with them and seeing them at our bbq
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My beautiful siblings and I. Ellie decided to photobomb us!  It was my sisters and my brother Josh planned our whole BBQ along with my BFF, Jamie. Although Dave and I showed up 2 hours late (the cost of keeping it a surprise!!! haha!!), we had a wonderful time that afternoon!!!
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I honestly don’t know if I could have gotten through last year without this girl in my life. My best friend in the world, Jamie, and our boys. Life is good when you have a friend who is always able to help you see the positives…but who knows when to let you rant!! LOVE YOU TO BITS!!!
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Another dear friend, Veronique. I don’t see her nearly often enough, but when I do, it’s as though we were never apart.
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Jamie and I with our friend Tiffany, who is about as good of people as you can find! These gals are too fabulous for words!
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A beautiful shot of my beautiful girls, Ellie and Addyson 🙂
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I missed this kid more than anyone else over the last year. My gorgeous niece, Ellie
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Being an Auntie is one of the best parts of my life. I love these kids to bits and I can’t wait to see them all again next year!!!
My mum and I at Pepere's birthday party. I'd love to have a picture of my dad too, but he's so 'anti-camera' that I learned years ago that it's best not to try...unless he's not looking. Then all bets are off!!
My mum and I at Pepere’s birthday party. I’d love to have a picture of my dad too, but he’s so ‘anti-camera’ that I learned years ago that it’s best not to try…unless he’s not looking. Then all bets are off!!

It would be impossible to choose just 1 highlight from our trip back home, but if I absolutely had to choose, it might be the day we spent in St. Malo park with our families and a few friends.  Even though we were late for our surprise party, it was such a blast and when I think back to our time in Canada, that’s always the memory that sticks out.  I grew up in St. Malo and it was so wonderful being back there, at the provincial park, walking the same stone paths that I walked with my dog, Trace, as a teenager.  I love my country and when I think of Canada, this is what I think of.  This is home to me.

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Nothing quite like a sunset over St. Malo lake. Better yet…there was a family of geese hanging out in the water. I walked along the shore with them for a while. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt so calm and relaxed.
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When you grow up with this as your surroundings…it’s hard to get used to life in a city as loud and dirty as Guiyang. The fresh air here did me so much good.

The rest of the scenery we saw in Canada was fantastic as well.  I missed the big skies and the open fields that make Manitoba the beautiful province that it is.

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There’s nothing quite like a Manitoba sunset!
Loved seeing so many sunflowers and adored seeing the fields back home!
Loved seeing so many sunflowers and adored seeing the fields back home!

Our trip home was finished far too soon and before we knew it, it was time to say goodbye again.  Next year we plan to be home for closer to 6 weeks (twice as long) so perhaps we’ll be able to find time for a camping trip at Rushing River.  I’m so grateful that so many people took the time to spend their time with us while we were home and I really can’t wait to for July of next year when we can do it all again 🙂

The Trip to our New Home

We arrived in Suzhou on August 27th after a long trip back to China.  We got to know the LeQiao area of Suzhou, which is actually a lot like the nicer parts of Guiyang.  We quickly found the essentials…a BBQ place, a noodle place and a milk tea place.

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Our favorite “Nai Cha” joint from Guiyang is everywhere in Suzhou!
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We craved these the entire time we were in Canada
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I forgot to take a picture of the BBQ place but I did get one of the walk there.

We spent our first day in Suzhou apartment hunting.  Eight apartments and three real estate agents later, we found our new home.  We are SO thrilled with it!!!  The building is gorgeous and secure and the area is quiet and very modern.  Just outside our apartment building is a EuroMart, which sells everything from blue cheese to port wine to taco seasoning (all things we’d never seen in China before!).

The first thing you see when you walk into our apartment. Yes...we have 2 floors :)
The first thing you see when you walk into our apartment. Yes…we have 2 floors 🙂
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This is the upstairs bathroom. Do you notice that there’s no telephone line running through it???
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We have two bathrooms. The downstairs one has a western style washing machine. Quite the upgrade from our laundry facilities in Guiyang, which basically required us to hand wash all our clothes!!!
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Our gorgeous, clean and USABLE kitchen!!!  We even have hot water in the sink!!
Our bedroom. The bed is super comfortable and King Sized :)
Our bedroom. The bed is super comfortable and King Sized 🙂
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One of my favorite features of the apartment. This is the desk in our bedroom…
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It opens up!!!
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Our dining room tables folds out into double this size. And that big thing beside it is a heater/AC. We have 4 of them in our apartment….fantastic! Also…I love the bay windows we have!!!
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My office/ Yoga Room. It leads out to the balcony, which is nice 🙂
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My office is also the extra bedroom, so if anyone’s planning on visiting us…………..this whole space can be yours!!!!
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The daytime view from our balcony. You can see the lake and even one of Suzhou’s many canals from there 🙂
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Dave discussing the details of our apartment with Jean. Notice the couch? IT’S NOT A WOODEN BENCH!!!!!!!
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Our gigantic TV 🙂 It’s actually a flat screen! First time in my life I’ve had one!! We have used it a whopping 1 time in the last month lol!!
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Our upstairs ‘den’ that we turned into an office for Dave. The landlord bought us this desk when Dave wasn’t happy with the size of the one that was originally up there. He also bought a brand new Air conditioner/heater for the room so that Dave would be comfortable working there.

I should also note that both our landlords and our real estate agent are amazing.  It was Jean (the agent) that suggested the air conditioner in the upstairs den and the landlady had 2 women come in and clean the place til it was spotless before we moved in.  And we moved in the day after we saw the place, so she did that with very little notice.

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The view from our balcony at night

The whole process of moving out here has been so easy.  Last year, we arrived to find a run down apartment with mold and bug issues and when I asked for some help getting it set up I was called negative and told that I shouldn’t complain so much.  This year, I’ve been welcomed to Suzhou with a clean apartment, kind coworkers and wonderful students.

But I’ll have more on that in my next post!  And I promise it won’t take me 2 months to write it next time!!!

Elephant Nature Park – Eco Tourism at its Best!

Well, I can say a lot of things about my life here in China, but one thing I cannot say is that it’s boring!  The last 2 days have been a total blur and now that I find myself at our favorite hang out, finally ready to write about ENP, I fear I won’t have the energy to even make it through my intro.  In the last 48 hours we have been on: 2 Flights, 2 high speed trains, 7 metro  trains and in taxis.  I had 2 interviews on Tuesday, April 21st and they were in 2 different cities.  I woke up in Suzhou yesterday, Shanghai today and then taught kindergarten in Guiyang this evening!   If it weren’t for Shanghai’s INCREDIBLE transportation system and my expert co-navigator, this insane day would have never been possible.

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The busy Shanghai Train Station…which also happens to be their airport and a metro station!! So convenient!!
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The train behind us goes a whopping 268kms an hour, taking us 100kms in just 30 minutes!!
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The subways are a quick way to get around. Shanghai is so modern and awesome 🙂

But all the nuttiness and rushing around turned out to be very worth the trouble.  Because we were able to make it work, I was able to see first hand what my top 2 choices for employment for next term look like up close.  I was impressed with both, but I could only take one job, so after a lot of deliberation I decided to accept a position in the beautiful city of Suzhou.  The school feels like a good fit and I was offered a job teaching Drama and English Writing in the Middle School at the Suzhou Foreign Language School, which is sort of perfect for me!!  It’s a job I’ve been interested in for some time, and I was thrilled when they offered me the position.

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Suzhou is in Jiangsu Province…it’s located 100kms from Shanghai, but it only takes 30 minutes to get there by high speed rail 🙂
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Suzhou is famous for it’s canals and is known as The Venice of the Orient. Gorgeous city!!
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Nothing is quite like China at night! Lanterns and lit up buildings make for beautiful walks along the canals.
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Yup…I can handle living here!

The one bad thing about this whole nutty trip is that this happened to be my last weekend before we leave on our holiday in Cambodia.  I can hardly believe that I’m going on vacation again before I’ve even finished writing about the LAST vacation!!  Talk about living a spoiled life!!

But I better get on with it, before time slips away from me again and I wake up in Cambodia!  I’ve saved the best post for last, so I hope you enjoy reading it 🙂

Elephant Nature Park:  My New Favorite Place on Earth!!

Elephant Nature Park (or ENP) was founded in the 1990s by a lovely woman named Lek Chailart, whose love for elephants drove her to do something for them.  As of March, 2016 the park is home to 69 elephants, 100+ cats, 400+ dogs and around 80 buffalo.  Lek has taken all of the animals in and given them a natural home, where they aren’t abused by humans or used in the tourism industry for trekking or other harmful activities.

This is Lek.  In case you were wondering, THIS is what a good person looks like!
This is Lek. In case you were wondering, THIS is what a good person looks like!

There are so many reasons why Elephant Nature Park is a ‘must see’ for anyone who visits Thailand.  I’ve decided to sum up why I loved ENP so much into a nice compact list.  Here are my top 3 reasons why I think EVERYONE should visit ENP (or somewhere like it). We’ll start with #3…

#3- It’s a great place to Escape the hustle and bustle!!

Bangkok and Phuket were awesome…there was always plenty to see and plenty to do, but with everything being so crazy, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.  I was very happy our stay at ENP was towards the end of our trip, because it gave us an opportunity to wind down from all of that.  There is so much natural beauty here and it’s really set up to help you relax 🙂

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Our cabin for the night
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A balcony facing the Elephant pen, where they sleep at night. We could hear them snoring from our bed 🙂
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A comfortable mosquito netted bed 🙂 We found a cat curled up in our bed the following day when we stopped in to get some bug repellant. She’d crawled in through the window and seemed quite pleased with herself. We couldn’t bare to kick her out…
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The beautiful dirt road that lead to our cabin. It may not seem like anything special if you’re sitting back in North America, but after living in China for 6 months, it was nice to breath clean air and listen to the birds chirp 🙂

And if the lodging wasn’t quaint enough, the grounds where the elephants live are also gorgeous…

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The landscape is gorgeous. These elephants have a forested mountain as their backdrop
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The hills in northern Thailand are really quite nice
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Elephants LOVE water so having a creek run through ENP was a MUST.
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This old girl is living out the rest of her life in a beautiful and natural habitat.

And if natural beauty isn’t enough for you, the Park’s Pets add yet another layer of serenity to the place 🙂

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ENP has more than 400 rescued dogs on the grounds. This was one of the friendlier ones. Sadly, not all were so calm…we were snapped at by a few dogs, who had clearly learned to mistrust humans at some point in their lives.
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There is a whole area reserved for Cat Kingdom, where over 100 rescued felines spend their day being lazy and awesome
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We spent a lot of time in Cat Kingdom…I could have done a whole post on just our time there haha!!
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What a ham!!

The atmosphere at ENP was definitely one of the perks for me.  The beautiful scenery, abundant furry friends and rustic lodging were such a nice change from the rest of our trip!

#2 – High Entertainment Value

Right from our first moments at ENP, the elephants were making us laugh.  You’re first introduced to the elephants at the feeding platform, and when it’s feeding time, things can get a little nutty!!  THOSE TRUNKS!!!

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I felt trunks tap my bum or bump up against my hand more than once walking along that platform!

If you’ve never seen an elephant trying to maneuver itself in water, then  you have not properly seen an elephant.  These typically graceful creatures become carefree and goofy once in the water.  We probably could have spent a day just sitting there watching these guys play!

Baby elephants are especially playful!  They have no idea how big they are, so this can sometimes be problematic for the Mahouts, who try very hard to train the elephants not to push around people.  As the elephants get bigger, it becomes dangerous if they decide to push aside one of us tiny tourists, so we aren’t allowed to touch the babies…for their safety and for ours!!

This adorable little girl loves to slowly walk over to tourists and then charge them at the last second.  Fun for elephants!!
This adorable little girl loves to slowly walk over to tourists and then charge them at the last second. Fun for elephants!!
Here she is again, trying to get her Mahout to play with her! haha!!
Here she is again, trying to get her Mahout to play with her! haha!!
This is baby Navann peeking onto the feeding platform.  A few moments later, one of the dogs came over and started harassing him.  Did Navann run away?  NOPE!!  He grabbed a shovel and started swinging it at the dog!!!  Brilliant little boy!!!
This is baby Navann peeking onto the feeding platform. A few moments later, one of the dogs came over and started harassing him. Did Navann run away? NOPE!! He grabbed a shovel and started swinging it at the dog!!! Brilliant little boy!!!

The following is one of my favorite videos of our trip.  It’s of an elephant named Dokmai (she’s actually a girl, though in the video I thought she was a boy).  She just LOVES playing with fire hoses!!

But not all of our entertainment was presented in a comedic fashion.  At one point, our group was actually chased down by a group of irritated elephants, who were tired of the dogs nipping at their trunks (a favorite pass-time for ENP’s dogs)  We were standing by the river and all of a sudden, 4 or 5 elephants were charging toward us.  I didn’t get any pictures of the event (I was too busy running), but I can tell you, it was an exhilarating experience!!  Our guide, Apple, got us to run behind a fence, where she thought we’d be safe from trampling, but one of the elephants decided to follow us into the fenced area.  She got pretty close to us but then lost interest and went in the other direction.  Apple told us later that that particular elephant LOVES to chase people.  And that although she often does this, she has never hurt anyone…she always stops when she gets close to her target and then goes on her way in the other direction.  Maybe it’s her revenge for the years she spent working for humans in the tourism industry??

#1 – ENP is an extremely educational experience!!!

Elephant Nature Park isn’t just about laughter, relaxation and being chased by elephants.  The staff here are very knowledgeable about everything Elephant.  Some of the most interesting facts we learned:

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That trunk has over 40,000 muscles in it! It is the elephants most diverse tool and can be used for a wide variety of things, like transferring food into the elephant’s mouth, sounding out a trumpet to show predators that they mean business and even for showing affection to family members. A trunk can be soft and flexible (as shown in this picture) or it can be stiff and used to slap the ground to intimidate predators (trunk slapping is very cool…it sounds like a rubber tire being dropped on the ground).

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An elephant’s nose is also very well adapted for smelling.  Their sense of smell is actually better than that of a dog!!  Many elephants go blind in their lifetimes, because their environments usually involve a lot of dust, which gets into their eyes eventually causing blindness.  We met many blind elephants at the park (I developed a soft spot for them…) but they manage to survive (and would in the wild as well!) due to their incredible sense of smell!

This beautiful old girl was covered in mud.  I sort of lucked out and got to see her on my own while everyone else was resting.  The park's photographer saw me taking pictures from the feeding deck and called me over :)
This beautiful old girl was covered in mud. I sort of lucked out and got to see her on my own while everyone else was resting. The park’s photographer saw me taking pictures from the feeding deck and called me over 🙂

I’m sure you’ve heard that elephants are very fond of their families…this couldn’t be truer!  In fact, they have a similar mentality about family as i do…blood doesn’t have to be all there is to having children or siblings.  All of the babies at ENP have several ‘nannies’ who are FIERCELY protective of them.  When one of the dogs snapped at Dok Mai, the entire family began trunk slapping and circled around her for protection. I should add that none of these elephants are related by blood…family is just so important to them that they create a family if they are taken away from their original one.

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The heard protecting their precious baby from the mean ol’ dogs

This is why animal advocates are so against zoos that keep elephants alone.  I was happy to see that Calgary zoo had found new homes for their elephants, because they were moved to a place where there were more elephants for them to interact with.  These are truly social creatures and having them in a pen by themselves is a form of solitary confinement.  They go crazy…as I know I would as well.

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Love 🙂

I think more than anything else though, what surprised me about the elephants were the sounds they can make!  You’ve heard the stereotypical ‘trumpet’ that they make.  It’s a terrifying sound if it’s made in your direction, I can assure you of that!  But they make so many more sounds than just their trumpeting.  They grumble and squeak and sometimes almost sound like they’re purring.  I LOVED falling asleep to the sound of that grumbling coming from the elephant pen at night.  I fought sleep harder than I have since I was a little kid because I didn’t want to miss any of those nice sounds…

I also got a really cool video that sums up a lot of those sounds!  One of the elephants got left behind by her herd when they’d gone across the river to eat some greenery.  We watched her find them (and them find her) and it was quite the thing to see (and hear!!).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B0-Z3SA8KtI

The grumbling you can hear is going back and forth between them.  Elephants can communicate this way with one another when they are up to 10kms away from one another!  They have very sensitive feet and can feel vibrations in the ground when another elephant is calling to them this way.  Pretty cool!  I should also add that this is the herd that chased us about 5 minutes after I took this video…they were an ornery group…

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Doesn’t that 70 pound chair look comfortable for that beautiful animal!!??

But unfortunately, not all of the facts we learned about elephants were pleasant.  We learned a lot about the tourism industry while we met different elephants and were told their stories.  We met several elephants with broken backs, who were all injured at trekking camps, where they are loaded up with tourists for hours every day, often carrying over 300 pounds on their backs at once (the chair alone weights 70 pounds)  Although you’d think an elephant’s back is strong, given its size, it’s actually an elephant’s neck that is powerful and not its back, so many elephants end up with injuries.  The chairs used in trekking camps are also terrible for the elephants’ lungs, which are squeezed by the strap that holds the chair onto the elephant.  Add in the fact that they are overworked in terrible heat, and maybe you can understand why I refused to go elephant riding while in Thailand…

Add in the fact that the Elephant knows that it'll be stabbed in the head with that hook if it misbehaves, and then you get better image of what elephant trekking is like for the elephant
Add in the fact that the Elephant knows that it’ll be stabbed in the head with that hook if it misbehaves, and then you get better image of what elephant trekking is like for the elephant

I know many people who have ridden elephants while in Thailand, or even in North America at circuses or zoos.  I have heard many defenses over these types of rides, including things like ‘well THESE elephants were treated well!’ and ‘I rode on the elephant’s neck and not on a chair’.  And while those may seem like valid arguments, if you do a little research you discover that every single elephant in captivity has gone through a hellish experience known as ‘crushing’ and that by riding an elephant (even on its neck) you are supporting that industry.  Allow me to explain further…

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This is what the Elephant Crush looks like. This is how Elephants are taught to be ridden. This is also how they’re taught to paint pictures, be used in water fights and be used for begging…it all boils down to THIS practice, people!!

Elephants are highly intelligent and very strong willed.  To break an elephant requires a lot of work, and most people don’t believe an elephant can be trained without the use of violence.  So when an elephant reaches the age of about 4 (which is VERY young for an elephant…at that age they are still quite dependent on their mothers in the wild) they are put into a wooden cage that completely restricts movement, and are stabbed with sticks (that often have nails tied into the end of them so that the elephants’ tough skin can be broken) and they are kept in that ‘crush’ for anywhere from 5-8 days.  They are hit, stabbed with sticks and nails, screamed at and sleep deprived until they have lost the will to fight back.  THIS HAPPENS TO EVERY SINGLE ELEPHANT THAT IS BEING USED IN THE TOURISM INDUSTRY.

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I’m sorry if this image bothers you. If it does, please don’t be mad that I posted it…be mad that it happens!!!

So even if you ‘ride on their neck’ and even if the mahouts seem ‘really really nice’, these elephants are being tortured for human entertainment, and I know that’s not fun to hear, but it needs to be said.  I know that a couple of years ago, I may not have done the research I did this time.  Up until I did that research, ‘riding an elephant in Thailand’ was on my bucket list.  I changed it to ‘meet an elephant in Thailand’ because I can’t bring myself to support this industry knowing what I know.  And that’s why I’m sharing all of this with you.  Because now YOU know, and you can do something about it too!  Educate people!  Encourage people not to support this industry because you now know what happens behind the scenes.  It’s the only way any of this will stop, and after meeting all these incredible pachyderms, I had to write something about it.  I had to be part of the solution.

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Here are some elephant bums to make you smile 🙂

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